UN lays groundwork for killer robots ban

An Israeli made Harop suicide drone. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
An Israeli-made Harop suicide drone. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

A new UN decision has opened the path for a future ban on the use of ‘killer robots’ by member states.

Over the weekend, 89 nations of the UN Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) voted to establish a Group of Governmental Experts to work towards a ban on these systems.

Specifically, the ban would relate to robotic weapons systems which can autonomously decide whether to use lethal force without human approval.

The Group of Governmental Experts will meet at least twice in 2017 to continue discussions and work on a framework for a potential future ban.

Currently only 19 nations have formally stated that they would support a ban on killer robots. Notably this number excludes major users of robotic weapons such as the US, China, Israel and Russia.

“Once these weapons exist, there will be no stopping them. The time to act on a pre-emptive ban is now.” said Steve Goose, arms director of Human Rights Watch in a press release.

In the past the CCW has taken action to ban the use of incendiary weapons against civilians, as well as the military use of blinding lasers.

Killer robots just over the horizon

While long considered something out of science fiction, robots with the ability to autonomously kill are just around the corner.

Following the explosive growth of robotics and computing technology, more and more nations are putting these technologies to use on the battlefield.

Armed drones are now common across the skies of the Middle East and Africa, fielded not just by the US, but also local militaries.

As well, nations and defence companies are increasing their development of unmanned combat ground vehicles (UCGV) which may already be seeing battlefield use.

Within this environment, many fear that taking the human out of the loop could present an attractive option for militaries looking to gain an edge over their regional opponents.

Moreover, currently technologies like ‘long loiter munitions’ – suicide drones which hover over a battlefield before ID’ing a target and bombing it – already operate in an semi-autonomous ‘grey area’.